December 10, 2022:
Russia recently announced the formation of its first Su-57 stealth fighter unit. This unit, the 23rd Fighter Aviation Regiment, is based in the Russian Far East near the Sukhoi factory that produces Su-35 and Su-57 aircraft. This facility includes an aircraft test and evaluation center. Production of the Su-57 began twelve years ago when the first test and evaluation aircraft were built and tested. Veteran fighter pilots are undergoing transition training so they can handle the Su-57. At the moment the training is in the classroom. The pilots won’t get production model Su-57s until sometime in 2023. The Su-57 won’t be combat ready until 2025. At least that is the plan. Development of the Su-57 has been long and troubled. There have been a lot of false starts. If this first Su-57 unit is another false start, it will be a major embarrassment for Russia.
Back in 2019 Russia officially placed an order for 76 of its Su-57s. Russia already had 16 Su-57s on order but the official reason for the larger order is that the manufacturer cut the price 20 percent, contingent on a larger order. The first production Su-57 was supposed to arrive in 2019 but that won’t happen because the specified engine, the Saturn Izdeliye 30, is still in development. The current delivery date of that engine, which will enable the Su-57 to perform as specified, was not expected until 2020. Because of that, production models of the Su-57 could not be delivered until 2020. The 76-aircraft order specifies deliveries ending in 2028. The way Russian military procurement has worked since the 1990s is that orders for new items are always aspirational (what Russia would like to buy) rather than based on a realistic expectation of delivery. This is especially true with the troubled Su-57. Meanwhile the U.S. has put nearly a thousand F-35 stealth aircraft into service and China, which also had engine problems, solved those and has already established J-20 stealth fighter squadrons.
Every nation has problems meeting delivery dates for weapons that incorporate a lot of new technologies. Along with that come problems keeping the costs of developing these new technologies under control. Russia has set new standards for aspirational production orders. In short, post-1990s Russia rarely meets these aspirational goals. Compared to other nations, Russian delivery dates always tend to be very optimistic, which is why the term “aspirational” is used.
When it comes to fifth-generation fighters, Russia is very much in third place behind the United States and China. There is an element of the aspirational even with that third-place status. The U.S. and China already have fifth-generation aircraft in service. The Chinese J-20 has long been closer to being operational than the Su-57. One reason for all the contrived optimism over the Su-57 becoming operational is that Russia needs export customers. That has been difficult because the Su-57 as described on the spec sheet won’t be available until 2023 at the earliest. The spec sheet Su-57 is a stealthy, single-seat, twin-engine multirole fifth-generation fighter aircraft developed for air superiority and attack operations. This is the first Russian aircraft in military service to use stealth technology. The Su-57 also has super cruise (going supersonic without the afterburner) capability and advanced avionics capable of dealing with older warplane electronics as well as ground and naval air defense systems.
Russia developed the Su-57 as a successor to its Cold War era MiG-29 and Su-27/30 fighters. But the Su-57 is so expensive, and the Russian Air Force budget so small, that Russia cannot afford many of these stealth fighters. Moreover it is essential to obtain export sales to make mass production possible at all, not to mention profitable. The recent Russian claim that the manufacturer cut the price 20 percent is also aspirational because a growing number of Russian defense firms are sliding towards bankruptcy. Orders for new equipment have been scaled back since 2014 because of a contracting economy and Western sanctions over Russia’s seizure of Crimea and the Donbas from Ukraine. Russia likes to describe its economic growth as stalled but the reality is that entire categories of proposed (before 2014) new weapons purchases are being slowly eliminated. Efforts to hide all this, especially the continued decline of the Russian ability to develop and manufacture new weapons, have become less successful as the missed production and “in service” goals increase. Russian defense spending nearly doubled in 2022 because of the current war against Ukraine. The announcement of the Su-57 unit appears optimistic.
The Su-57 is a prime example of how the system of constantly shifting goals and missed deadlines works. The Su-57 began development in 2002 and the first of ten flyable prototypes flew in 2010. Four non-flying prototypes were also built for ground tests and such. From the beginning there were problems perfecting the high-performance engines. For example, the first two flight prototypes had to use a less capable variant of the AL-31 engine used by the Su-27 aircraft. The other flyable prototypes used a more powerful AL-41F1S engine, which was also used in the most modern Su-27 variant, the Su-35. Flight testing soon made it clear that even the AL-41F1 was not powerful enough for the spec sheet Su-57. This meant that the Izdeliye 30 variant of the Al-F41, originally designed for the Su-57, had to be perfected before the Su-57 could enter production as an export aircraft. The Izdeliye 30 has increased thrust and fuel efficiency as well as 3D thrust vectoring nozzles. At the end of 2017, the tenth flight prototype was equipped with Izdeliye 30 engines and demonstrated its superior performance, including super cruise. However, the Izdeliye 30 was still not reliable enough for sustained use, so mass production of the Su-57 engine was delayed. Russia proposed shipping production models of the Su-57 with an Al-F41 variant that enables the aircraft to get the most out of its stealth and high-performance electronics but without the promised super cruise and thrust vectoring maneuverability features. Potential customers, including the Russian Air Force, were not interested in purchasing a “developmental aircraft” because that’s what the Su-57 was without the fully functional Izdeliye 30 engines.
India, which agreed in 2010 to invest $6 billion for development and production of the Su-57, pulled out of that deal in 2018 because of the many missed deadlines and attempts by Russia to hide the degree to which Su-57 development was aspirational. Russia was providing aspirational data when India was demanding realistic updates on where Su-57 development was. India originally planned on purchasing 214 slightly modified (for Indian use) Su-57s. That is gone and Russia is unlikely to get it back because too much of existing Su-57 progress is still more aspirational than reality.
Development got off to a bad start as Russia encountered unexpected (or just unwanted) technical complications that, by 2012, caused India to reduce its planned purchase to 144 fighters. Development problems persisted, as did the unreliability of progress reports and in early 2018 India pulled out of the Su-57 project. India noted the Su-57 was way behind in completing development of the stealth technology as well as the advanced electronics. Russia disagreed but without Indian development money and initial aircraft purchases proceeding as planned, the Su-57 faced cancellation. Instead, Russia came up with a plan to continue development but with significantly reduced performance goals. To demonstrate the feasibility of this approach in February 2018 two Su-57 prototypes were sent to Syria to demonstrate the existing capabilities of the aircraft as it performed various types of missions during a major air support operation for ground forces clearing rebels from a Damascus suburb. This lasted until April and the Su-57s successfully completed an operational testing program that included combat trials. The capabilities of multiple Su-57 weapon systems were tested during ten flights. The most significant test was when a Su-57 fired a Kh-59MK2 cruise missile against an Islamic terrorist target. Russia concluded that, although the intent and purpose of the Su-57 program had changed since development began, the aircraft represented a significant advance in Russian military aircraft performance and was a worthy competitor to American and Chinese stealth designs.
The reality was that the Su-57s sent to Syria were mainly carrying out promotional stunts. Those two aircraft had little of the promised “fifth-generation” capabilities and the Americans and Israelis were able to monitor the Su-57 performance closely and in great detail. That confirmed the Indian complaints, and the belief that the Su-57 development was still in trouble and the prognosis was grim.
Russia now justifies the expensive Su-57 because it could serve up to 35 years and be used in smaller quantities as a special mission aircraft. That means the Su-57 would only be used for specific missions that require the unique capabilities of the aircraft. This would include developing an anti-ship missile that would not compromise Su-57 stealth qualities. The Su-57 could also be used for SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses). Earlier in 2019 the Russian Air Force placed an order for 15 Su-57s to be used for developing weapons and tactics for these special missions. The order was rolled into the later one because 76 is more impressive than 61.
All this is basically in support of attracting export customers for the Su-57. The Su-57 has to pay its own way because most of the Russian aircraft procurement budget is needed to purchase Su-34 and Su-35 aircraft to replace the Cold War era Su-27 and MiG-29 aircraft that are too old and worn out to be useful any longer. The Russian Air Force received around 200 new and upgraded aircraft in 2017, plus 100 more aircraft in 2018 and is having a difficult time avoiding further reductions.
Unlike India, China never intended to be a major export customer for Su-57 aircraft but Su-57 tech became another matter after the Chinese fifth-generation stealth fighter, the J-20A, experienced its own development delays. The reason was more technical problems than expected. This delayed J20 entry into service. A key technical challenge is that the J-20A lacks a locally developed high-performance engine and, like the Su-57, continues to rely on older Russian engine models that are almost powerful enough but also reliable enough for sustained service. China developed its military jet engine industry with Russian help and encountered some of the same performance and reliability problems the Russians confronted. By continuing to buy Russian high-performance engines, China could monitor Russian progress in overcoming development and production problems that have been a major problem for stealth and high-performance military aircraft in general. This is not unusual and has been the trend when you view how each “generation” of new warplanes was developed and performed.
Getting from generation to generation of combat aircraft has become a lot more expensive with the last two generations. American warplanes like the F-22 and F-35, which are often called "5th generation" fighters. The generation reference is mainly about the emergence of jet fighters, and much other new tech during and after World War II. The first generation was developed during and right after World War II (German Me-262, British Meteor, U.S. F-80, and Russian MiG-15). Actually, the first jet-powered aircraft (a German He 178) flew in August 1939. The first jet aircraft were, even by the standards of the time, difficult to fly and unreliable, especially the engines. The 2nd generation (1950s) included more reliable but still dangerous to operate aircraft like the F-104 and MiG-21. The 3rd generation (1960s) included F-4s and MiG-23s. The 4th generation (1970s) included F-16s and MiG-29s.
Each generation has been about twice as expensive (on average, in constant dollars) as the previous one. But each generation is also about twice as safe to fly and somewhat cheaper to operate. Naturally, each generation is more than twice as effective as the previous one. Increasingly it looks like the 6th generation may well be pilotless aircraft. That’s because producing manned fifth-generation fighters has proven difficult as well as very expensive. Until recently, only the United States had managed to get 5th gen fighters (F-22 and F-35) into service. The Russians appear to be behind the Chinese J-20. The Chinese J-20 was, until recently, only technically in service because production was suspended after less than a dozen were produced. That suspension quietly ended in 2021.
The Russians always claimed that they would keep working on their 5th generation Su-57, although some of the derivatives of their Su-27 are at least generation 4.5. One of the reasons the Soviet Union collapsed was the realization that they were unable to develop 5th generation warplanes to stay competitive with America. The Russians had a lot of interesting stuff on the drawing board and in development but the bankruptcy of most of their military aviation industry during the 1990s left them scrambling to put the Su-57 project back together. For a while Russia considered making a run for the 6th generation warplanes, which would likely be unmanned and largely robotic. Russia discovered that they didn’t have many options and those options were gradually fading into the “not likely” zone as Russian military and financial resources continued to diminish. This puts news of the first Su-57 squadron into historical perspective.